Manchester United will be without Angel di Maria and Chris Smalling for the visit of fierce rivals Liverpool to Old Trafford on Sunday, but manager Louis van Gaal can see “the light at the end of the tunnel” of the club’s injury problems. Van Gaal’s reign has been beset by a succession of injuries throughout his squad, and there was a further blow in a 2-1 victory over Southampton on Monday when Chris Smalling was forced off. The defender, along with Di Maria, who is nearing a return after suffering a hamstring problem at the end of last month, will be unable to feature at the weekend, along with Daley Blind and Luke Shaw. But, with Rafael and Phil Jones returning to training, Van Gaal is upbeat.

“Now I have only 4 players injured. So that’s better than ever I believe,” he said with a smile. “Only Shaw, Smalling, Di Maria and Blind [are out]. Falcao could make a return. As I have said already last week, the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight and I believe that by the end of December maybe we shall only have three or four injuries.”  

Van Gaal will head into his first experience of a clash between England’s two must successful clubs, and two of its bitterest foes, on a real high. The win at Southampton was Manchester United’s fifth in a row, the first time that has been achieved since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. While the performances may not have quite matched those heights, the run has taken them into third place in the Premier League.

The mood around Old Trafford contrasts sharply with that at Anfield. After coming so close to a first title in more than two decades last season, Liverpool have endured a torrid start to this campaign. On Tuesday, things took a further turn for the worse when their return to the Champions League following a five-year absence was ended at the group stage after a 1-1 draw at home to Basel.

“We were disappointed after the Champions League game,” manager Brendan Rodgers said. “Our objective was to qualify through the group stages and we didn’t do that. But one thing we’ve always maintained here is the spirit in the camp and no matter what the outside influences are, spoken about and written about, we’ve always maintained that strong mentality in the group. We’ll be ready come the weekend.”

On the face of it, Liverpool’s recent form is hardly disastrous, having gone five matches without a loss and taken seven points from their last nine in the Premier League. And, despite being down in ninth place in the table, they are just six points off of fourth place. In their objective to get back into the Champions League, the next week could be key, with United and next week’s opponents Arsenal still likely to be their chief rivals. But Rodgers insists his focus lies with lifting the team’s performances.

“For us it’s really about looking to improve our performance level,” he added. “We’ve got some results of late but realty we want to keep improving on the performance level. As my teams have shown we’ll get better as the season goes on, but we want to start that sooner rather than later.”

Liverpool could have striker Mario Balotelli back after a month out, with the striker having returned to training in recent days. Kolo Toure is expected to be in the squad after being forced to sit out the draw with Basel.

Kickoff time: 8.30 a.m. EST

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra